Saturday, August 30, 2008

Flu Shot Time

Every year since I turned 50, I got a flu shot. Last year I got the flu anyway, since the shot-makers had misjudged just what strains would turn up. Can't blame them for that -- microbial mutations are pretty unpredictable. Still, I always reasoned with myself, you can't be too careful.

It turns out you can. A news item on CNN this morning cited a new study on flu shots among "older people" (sixty-second news items aren't given to mathematical precision). The study says that the correlation between getting the shot and not getting the flu is not due to the vaccine. Instead, it's due to the fact that some older people take better care of themselves overall. Those are the ones who get the shot, but they'd have the same lower incidence of flu if they didn't get it. They wash their hands more. Or maybe they just stay home with all the windows closed all winter. Or something.

So now I'm left with a dilemma -- to flu-shot or not flu-shot? That is the question. Whether 'tis better to suffer the pounding head and scratchy throat of outrageous fortune...

Never mind. I'm babbling. Blogging will resume after the Labor Day weekend, since I'm away. Have a good holiday.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Steamship Time

In some history course or other that I took sometime or other, the instructor talked about "steamship time." That's a view of history that says that when the era is ripe for something to be invented or discovered or changed -- when the right infrastructure of ideas has been building steadily -- someone will invent or discover or change it. It's a view of history that minimizes individual talents and emphasizes social/scientific climate. In other words, if Robert Fulton hadn't invented the steamship, someone else would have, because it was steamship time.

I have no idea if this theory is true, or universally applicable. (It's difficult, for instance, to imagine "general relativity time.") But the theory came to mind yesterday because I was organizing my magazine basket, a large wicker structure into which I pretty much dump everything until it won't hold any more. Among the magazines were the August and the October/November issues of ASIMOV'S. The August issue contains Ted Kosmatka's terrific story "Divining Light." I sat on the floor beside my basket and reread it.

"Divining Light" concerns the metaphysical implications of the two-slit experiments in physics, seminal experiments in which the wave/particle duality of light collapses OR NOT depending entirely on whether there is an observer. When I first read about these experiments, decades ago, I was struck dumb by them. They seem to imply that human consciousness -- or somebody's consciousness -- is woven into the very fabric of the universe. For a very long time, I wanted to write an SF story about that. And last year, I did. It's "The Erdmann Nexus," in the October/November ASIMOV'S.

Ted's story focuses tightly on the two-slit experiment. "The Erdmann Nexus" is about other things as well (which may be why editor Sheila Williams didn't see the two as repetitious), but the two-slit experiment is at the heart of it. I'm proud of this story; I think it's one of my best. But sitting on the floor and reading Ted's "Divining Light," I was struck by the similarity at their hearts. I didn't meet Ted until a month ago, at Worldcon, and we have never corresponded.

Maybe it's just two-slit-experiment time?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cows, and Cows Again

When I was eleven or so, I read Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Many things about the book puzzled me, but one in particular bothered me a lot. No, not the substantive issues (slavery, the frontier as personal freedom, etc.). It was the cows. In Chapter 11, Huck dresses up as a girl and calls on a random woman to try to get information about Jim. The woman sees through his disguise, and then Huck tells her another story, part of which is that he's a country boy. She asks him some questions, one of which is this:

"If fifteen cows is browsing on a hillside, how many of them eats with their heads pointed in the same direction?"
"The whole fifteen, mum."
"Well, I reckon you have lived in the country. I thought maybe you was trying to hocus me again."

For years after, I studied cows in fields. They did not all eat with their heads pointed in the same direction. I was confused. Now, mumbly-mumbly decades later, science has taken up my confusion. A team of German and Czech scientists studied satellite photos of 8,510 cows standing in pastures around the world. They found that two-thirds had aligned their bodies in a north-south direction. Since this is more than would indicate chance, the scientists speculate that the magnetic poles have something to do with the bovine alignment.

Even so, Twain got it wrong. Only ten of those fifteen cows should have "had their heads pointed in the same direction." In fact, it might be fewer, since some animals in north-south alignment might have their rumps pointed at the other pole of the Earth. Now, I ask you -- if you can't trust great writers, who can you trust?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Semi-Cranky at the Movies

In the last week I've seen two movies, one based on a classic, world-renowned, nearly flawless novel, the second based on a collection of SF tropes that have been around for fifty years. The second movie was the good one.

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh) is one of my favorite novels of all time. The current version did not need to be made, since the BBC had already done a marvelous mini-series starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. If the current version somehow had to be made, it didn't need to totally reverse characterization (in the book Charles Ryder says Brideshead Castle should go to the heir presumptive; in the movie he covets it throughout for himself.) The film did not need to polarize complex and subtle characters into good-bad. It did not need to change the ending, and thus the point of the entire book. It didn't need to do those things, but it did them, and the result is an unqualified disaster. Do not see this movie.

On the other hand, Wall-e is charming. It contains no ideas that Fred Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, or Arthur Clarke were not exploring in the 1950's: a consumerist society growing fat and powerless, the exodus from a ruined Earth, the survival of machines after we leave. But Wall-e embodies these ideas in robots that are inventive, appealing, and just plain fun to watch. There are sly nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Star Wars, to less well-known SF. When I left the theater, I felt like humming a quick chorus of "Everything Old Is New Again."

Was this partly because my expectations of Brideshead were greater than for an animated movie for kids? Undoubtedly. But the contrast isn't totally a matter of expectations. It also grows from film makers who treat their material with both respect and pleasure. Waugh deserved better.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Last night I was at a party at the home of SF writer Craig DeLancey, and the question of epigenetics came up. (I have to tell you, parties among writers/scientists are the only venues this sort of thing comes up for me. It doesn't happen, for instance, at meetings of the Home Owners' Association.) I was familiar with the basic idea of epigenetics, which is that having genes isn't the whole story; the greater part is how, when, how often, and in what order those genes are switched on or off during the development of an organism. Some of the mechanisms by which this is done (such as methylation) are becoming well understood. The overall reasons, as yet, are mostly not.

The cool part, however, is that the changes inside the cell caused by epigenetics can be inheritable, in at least three ways. Two of them I was aware of before last night's party; the other one I was not.

First, as everybody knows, stem cells have the complete genome encased in each cell. Stem cells develop into various kinds of cells by switching on, say, the brain-developing genes and switching off the toe-developing genes. As these newly differentiated cells divide, the switching-on-or-off carries into the two resulting daughter cells, ensuring that you don't get a toe inside your brain. This is Epigenesis I.

In Epigenesis II, adult cells that divide also bequeath their switched-on-or-off pattern to daughter cells. Thus, not only do insulin-processing cells beget more insulin-processing cells, if yours are doing a lousy job of this task, so will your new ones. This epigenesis is thought to be the result of the transference of existing cell structures in the two dividing cells, as well as of any genes that may be malfunctioning. No real surprise here.

The surprise comes in Epigenesis III. Some traits acquired in mothers as a result of how their patterns of cells react to environmental toxins seems to be inherited by their offspring. This sounds almost LaMarckian, but there is proof from experiments with agouti mice. Mice with identical genomes (they were clones) were exposed to high concentrations of BPA (that's the same toxin being yelled about with regard to plastic water bottles). The offspring of those so exposed were a different color (yellow rather than brown) and gained weight easily. This might have been construed as damage to their genomes -- except that the new offspring were then not exposed to any more BPA, and still their offspring showed heritable patterns of color and weight gain, presumably as a result of the passing on of Gen II's epigenetic patterns. And the abnormalities were reversed by feeding the mice diets high in soy, indicating they were not set-in-stone genetic instructions.

This boggles my mind. Not only does it shift everything I thought I knew about genes, it also lends terrible weight to that most Biblical of curses: The sins of the fathers shall be passed onto the children, unto the fourth generation.

Other than disturbing my mind -- or maybe because of it -- it was a terrific party.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Quick updates on various items:

The Kids' Writing Camp concludes today. I have some talented young fictioneers and the class has gone very well, with just one blip. Every day a midmorning snack is delivered to our classroom: pretzels or cookies or whatever. Wednesday it was a big bowl of animal crackers. However, it turns out that there is a fascinating fad among the twelve-year-old set for seeing if it is possible to drill a hole through the center of one animal cracker using nothing but the leg of a second animal cracker. Everyone immediately forgot about effective prose and became absorbed in accomplishing this important task. This does not happen when I teach Clarion.

DOGS video: The You Tube video for DOGS is up at Tachyon Press put this together with no budget whatsoever, and I am grateful. It will make you either want to read the book or to sell your pet.

Story for TECHNOLOGY REVIEW: This is still under review. I hope to hear soon that it's been accepted by the magazine, which I very much want to be in.

Idea for a novel: I still don't have one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Drinking Age

According to AP, presidents from about 100 universities have signed a petition to lower the drinking age in their states from 21 to 18. The thinking is that the higher drinking age "actually encourages dangerous drinking binges on campus," as well as being discriminatory. Groups like MADD are opposing the move.

The reason this news item caught my eye is that it so completely reverses the arguments of my own college days. Then the drinking age was 18 but the voting age was 21. The argument then was that if the young men fighting in Vietnam were old enough to die for their country, they were old enough to vote in it. Subsequently, the voting age dropped and the drinking age rose. Now the soldiers fighting in Iraq are old enough to die for their country and to vote in it, but (mostly) not to drink in it.

Somewhere in all these conflicting claims there is surely sense, but I can't find it. Traffic fatalities have fallen since the drinking age was raised to 21; that's well documented. But if a young man or woman is old enough to carry an M-16 on a life-threatening mission...surely he or she is old enough to have a beer?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing Camp

Today I began a week-long stint as an instructor at a local "writing camp" for 11-to-14-year-olds. Each morning I and 15 kids will write, explore some facet of fiction through examples and exercises, talk about words, and listen to good fiction. Today we worked on dialogue. We wrote dialogues featuring different responses from different kinds of characters to the same situation. I read them Terry Bisson's "They're Made of Meat," as an example of what could be done with nothing but dialogue, and they loved it ("Awesome!") They wrote arguments between two characters featured in various pictures (the argument between two buildings in New York was especially interesting). We also talked about plot, in preparation for the story they will be writing the rest of the week.

This is a self-selected group of kids, and already I can tell there is talent here. They dramatize. They have creative ideas. They're a raucous joy. But I think a week is about as much as I could do, because they have an order of magnitude more energy than I do. I went home and had a nap.

Tomorrow -- on to effective description.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cranky At the Movies

This afternoon I saw THE DARK KNIGHT, which got very good reviews. I didn't like it.

The performances were fine, especially Heath Ledger's as The Joker. This performance is not getting attention only because Ledger died so young; he's compelling on screen. And Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhardt are also good. The film deals with some substantive questions: Is it possible to be decent in an indecent world, is it possible to fight corruption without becoming corrupt. But the script, for me, ruined the movie. The script and the editing.

I know this is a comic-book-hero movie and thus one can expect melodrama, frenetic pace, and implausible situations. We are not dealing with Tolstoy here. But this movie isn't faithful to its own characters and situations. How does The Joker deposit all those explosives in the hospital without being seen? We never know. How does he overpower the burly policeman, twice his size, who is guarding him and is prepared to kick the shit out of him? We don't see it. Why does losing his fiancee and being disfigured turn an alleged hero not only bitter (understandable) but into a man capable of killing a child and taunting the father about it? In less than 24 hours? These are only a few examples out of dozens.

Also, the movie is edited so that scenes flash by us at a dizzying pace, allowing time to neither convince us of a situation or to get a feel for the people involved in it. Especially in the first half, most scenes that are not car chases or explosions last a minute or less (I timed them). This is supposedly the kind of quick cuts the MTV generation likes, but I had a member of the MTV generation with me (she's 16) and she didn't like it either. "That was a really stupid movie," she said in deep disgust as we left the theater. It isn't actually stupid, but it's over-plotted, over-edited, and way too focused on things blowing up.

I was disappointed.

What did all those positive reviews see that I didn't?

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Luminol is a compound that chemifloresces in the presence of blood: It glows blue. Even a trace amount of blood will show up if sprayed with Luminol. Forensic investigators use it at a crime scene to find minute traces that survive scrubbing.

Two days ago I injured my right big toe. I cleaned it, bandaged it, and forgot it. In the shower the bandage must have come off. Then yesterday, while cleaning my bedroom, I banged my toe against the bed frame. Unknown to me, the toe started to bleed again. Oblivious, I moved around the room, changing sheets and dusting, until I happened to glance down and saw blood all over the white carpet. A lot of blood. A very lot of blood. "Yet who would have thought the old toe to have had so much blood it it?" (Apologies to the bard.) My bedroom looked like a homicide had been committed there.

This morning a carpet professional cleaned it all up. But was it really "all?" If the cops ever have cause to perform an investigation in that room, will they find traces of old blood and draw wrong conclusions?

On the other hand, Luminol also chemiflouresces in the presence of horseradish. Maybe they'll just assume someone had a picnic on the floor.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Nanny Cities

My favorite Robert Sheckley story is "Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay," in which a city equipped with AI nags its inhabitants for their own good, causing all of them to move out. I thought of this while coming across a news item yesterday. REASON magazine recently ranked "the worst nanny cities in America" by their municipal ordinances designed to save people from themselves: laws against smoking, drugs, guns, sex, alcohol, gambling. What interested me especially was that different cities target different vices.

Seattle and L.A. are hard on smokers -- Seattle bans smoking not only in public places but also 25 feet away from doors -- but (according to the magazine) "mostly looks the other way on pot." Nashville and Memphis are death on pot but let you smoke anywhere. Houston and El Paso are tough on both substances but easy on guns, whereas Chicago tries to control guns and has some alcohol-free, "dry" districts.

The least nanny-like city (no surprise) is Las Vegas. It allows gambling, guns, smoking, drinking, and may legalize prostitution. Next unrestricted is Miami, although maybe because nobody can keep up with all its vices anyway.

My city, Rochester, is hard on smoking, soft on alcohol, allows a state lottery and church bingo, and is up to 24 homicides this year. Per capita, we're more dangerous than Manhattan. Guns abound. Several of the homicide victims were by-standers. The most recent, a few days ago, was deliberately run over with a car.

All Sheckley's city did was nag the story's protagonist about eating enough fruit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reading List

Now that Denvention is over, I'm starting to prepare for my teaching semester in Leipzig. One of the courses I'll be teaching is science fiction. I've been told that since the students will be reading in English, and since German university students carry a heavier load of courses than American students, I should restrict their reading to about 150 pages per week. This doesn't leave too much room for very many books. The theme of the course is "constructing future societies," with a political as well as a social slant. Thus, my reading list for the course is:

RED MARS -- Kim Stanley Robinson -- in which colonists on Mars get into wars trying to construct societies

THE DISPOSSESSED -- Ursula Le Guin -- in which anarchists don't get into wars constructing a totally new society

HOLY FIRE -- Bruce Sterling -- which imagines future societies of Europe

THE BEST OF THE BEST -- ed. Gardner Dozois -- with a variety of short fiction to supplement the novels

There are any number of excellent books I could have chosen for this course, but I think these will at least start some interesting discussions on man as a social animal.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Denvention, Belatedly

I promised to blog from Denvention, and then I didn't, and I'm sorry. But the Hyatt wanted $10 day for Internet access, which I refused to pay on principle. I'm not sure information wants to be free, but wifi should have been considering the room rates. So now I am sitting in the Denver airport, where the wi-fi is free, wondering how to compress an entire Worldcon into a single blog entry.

It was spread-out. It was slightly, but not majorly, disorganized. It was a lot of fun. I lost a Hugo. But I expected that, since I was after all up against Connie Willis, who is not only the crowd-pleaser of all time but also on her home turf. To ease the pain, I had bet against myself, and thus ended u[p $25 richer, if one Hugo poorer.

The Sheraton was the party hotel, but since all of the parties were very crowded and very hot (the Sheraton was having AC problems; at one point a hotel worker actually poured ice into the AC ducts, in front of the blower), a lot of action took place in the Hyatt bar. There, perched on high stools, people met and drank and talked and circulated, my favorite part of any Worldcon. I think of SF cons as the equivalent of mountain-men jubilees in the nineteenth century. You spend a long stretch alone hunting furs (or writing stories) and every once in a while you just have to come down from the mountains for an intense spree with your own kind. Trade your furs, carouse a bit, make new contacts with the traders (BLOCK THAT METAPHOR!)

The Hugos were run capably by Toastmaster Wil McCarthy, who brought the program in under two hours. The panels all started on time. The Green Room had good coffee and Danish and fruit. My best panel was Monday morning with Jim Morrow and Harry Turtledove, on the subject "How Will The Twentieth Century Be Remembered In the Far Future?" Or something like that. We didn't, of course, stay on topic, but we did stray into some interesting by-ways. Jim and I disagree on almost everything, which is the best way to have a lively panel.

By Sunday night, however, I was exhausted, peopled-out, and tired of living out of a suitcase. Back to the mountains to hunt furs.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

LaunchPad -- The Last Hurrah

Today was the last day of Launch Pad. Here we all are, saying good-bye to a wonderful experience. Just because it was the last day in no way meant that the pace slackened. We had five presentations, from:

1) Dr. Ruben Gamboa on "Computing in Astronomy." I was astonished to learn that because the computer programs had not been ready in time to make the launch window for two previous Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, the programs were uploaded to the robots after they reached Mars. What if there had been a bug?

2)Jerry Oltion on "The Human Element in Space." Much interest in sex in space. However, the experience is likely to be disappointing for several reasons, including that blood pools in the wrong part of the body. People aboard the KC135 (the commercial equivalent of NASA's "Vomit Comet") have apparently tried it, but they only had 25 seconds of weightlessness to get as far as possible. Enough said.

3) Dr. Rajib Ganguly on "Quasar Absorption Lines." This one I couldn't follow, due to a lack of both sleep and high-school chemistry. Finally gave up and caught a nap on the sofa in the hall.

4)Mike Brotherton on "Extra-solar Planets." Very useful to SF writers. Mike also recommended the website, which keeps track of what we've discovered, where, and how. Current score: 228 planets discovered in our galaxy.

5)Mike again on his current research on "Post-Starburst Quasars." Amazing slides of distant quasars, plus information on how we know what we know about these high-energy quasi-stellar objects.

Then everyone trooped off to dinner at a Thai restaurant. We are now all packing for an early departure tomorrow. I cannot recommend LaunchPad highly enough. For those interested in applying for next year, information will soon be available at

Tomorrow -- on to Denvention, the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver.

LaunchPad -- Day 5

For a very long time, science and math have been considered male provinces. LaunchPad, however, has eight female attendees and five males. Here we are, the Astronomical Women (aka Girls of the Galaxy):

Top row, right to left: Mary Robinette Kowal, Christine Stebbins, Cherryl Floyd-Miller, Deanna Hoak, Andrea Hairston. Bottom row: Alma Deckert, Nancy Kress, Laura Mixon.

Today was a very full day. At breakfast the conversation turned to the emotional components of beginning to succeed at a career in writing: fear of failure, fear of success, dealing with the envy of those who started when you did but are selling less well, the whole complicated cluster of emotions around awards like the Nebula and the Hugo. Many different viewpoints were offered and -- more important -- accepted. We learn outside of class, too.

In class, Mike Brotherton gave us two and a half hours on galaxies: what we know, how we know it, and why it might be wrong. Those twin enigmas, dark matter and dark energy, were explained to the extent that they can be, complete with the math. I followed as much as I could, feeling some affinity when we got to WIMP, but this turned out to be not a brain reeling on information overload but rather a "weakly interacting massive particle." As always, the slides were spectacular.

Some of us escaped the classroom for lunch on the grass. The campus contains many interesting things, including this:

Deanna Hoak, Laura Mixon, and David Marusek inside a sculpture made entirely of twigs, branches, and grasses. It smells of sage and will not last long.

The afternoon had three long sessions. Mike, who was by now sounding a little hoarse, led us through "Cosmology," including the conflicting theories of the Big Crunch, the Big Empty, and the Big Rip. There was more on dark matter and dark energy. I was most fascinated by the large-scale structures of the universe as a whole: filaments and walls of galaxy superclusters that map, in Mike's words, "looking like the innards of a pumpkin."

Mike explains why everything isn't somewhere else.

We then moved to the astronomy lab for a seminar on "Astronomical Imaging/Data," led by astronomer Chip Kobulnicky. Paired at computers, we manipulated the images taken two nights ago at WIRO to add color, combine galaxies, and generally behave as gods of creation. The program is called DS9, for "Deep Space Nine" -- astronomers are SF fans. Cherryl and I worked on the ring nebula photos, which I would include here if I could find it on my computer. It's in here somewhere, I know.

Back in the classroom, Jeffrey Lockwood led writing exercises on what messages we should send to aliens through SETI. This ended up as a spirited discussion on whether aliens could understand anything at all from us. Would we even have simple math in common? Was math intrinsic to the universe or just another human symbol system? And what about sending haiku into deep space?

I skipped dinner in favor of a brief rest. Then on to the rooftop of the astronomy building for small-telescope night. We viewed Jupiter, the Wild Duck Cluster of stars, the ring nebula we had colorized earlier in the day, and the double star Mizar/Alcor in the Big Dipper. The space station sailed majestically overhead. We all waved. Humans in space, humans learning about space, math in space. And pumpkin innards.

Monday, August 4, 2008

LaunchPad -- Day 4

Today I wimped out.

In the morning we took a hike in the Vedauwoo Recreational Area of Medicine Bow National Forest. Spectacular rock formations, forest of pine and aspen and birch. The trail to Turtle Rock wound through patches of forest, between massive boulders, through tiny meadows. Unfortunately, I didn't see all of the trail. After one mile, Alma Deckert and I were done in by a combination of sun, altitude, and lack of sleep, so we returned to the van and waited for the others. Still, this meant we did two miles, each step scented with the ubiquitous sage, and the walk was gorgeous.

We arrive at Medicine Bow National Forest.

There is a climber scaling this cliff face and here....

he is on zoom lens.

And here is Jay Lake, recent cancer survivor, looking justifiably proud of himself. He did more of the hike than I could.

Back at the dorms, we had 15 minutes to all shower and reassemble, since the day was behind schedule. A fast lunch at a Mexican restaurant and back to campus, this time to the planetarium. Jim Verley instructed us on the ecliptic, constellations, right ascension and declination, and how all of this would look both from Laramie and from David Marusek's home in Fairbanks, Alaska. We got a limited look, however, because the planetarium equipment was malfunctioning slightly, able to show only the view at noon. Stuck at noon! Jim finished with a rousing laser display to the music of Pink Floyd.

By now we were hopelessly behind schedule. So Jerry Oltion deferred his presentation until tomorrow and Mike Brotherton finished his from yesterday. He covered binary stars, accretion disks, all kinds of novae, pulsars, neutron stars, and black holes. Again, the slides were spectacular. I learned that the saying among astronomers to describe the stripping of normal characteristics of matter from black holes is: "Black holes have no hair."

Back to the dorm, later than usual. I don't know what people did about dinner or with our free evening because I crashed early, hard, and long. There is no place on Earth I'd rather be this week than at this seminar, but it takes an enormous amount of energy, and I've never had enough of that precious commodity. I need to be a pulsar. Or perhaps a quasar, but I can't say for sure because we don't get to those until Tuesday.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

LaunchPad -- Day 3 -- Atop the Mountain

No class this morning, so the other too-early-riser, Deanna Hoak, and I took an early morning walk in search of a cowboy hat to buy. No luck (although I did find one later), but we had coffee, and I got to hear how the publishing industry looks from the viewpoint of a copy editor.

Lunch was en masse at The Library, a restaurant across the street from campus, where I tried "Rocky Mountain oysters." Jay Lake did warm me they are sheep testicles, but I ate them anyway. Tastes like chicken.

Two classroom sessions today, "Amateur Astronomy" from Jerry Oltion and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Stars" from Mike Brotherton. Jerry's love of astronomy came through as he enthused about telescopes, mounts, and the ways that amateur astronomers work with professionals to build up huge data bases. Now I know what to look for if I ever buy a telescope.

The star lecture excited everyone, in part because it tied together everything we'd learned so far. Suddenly absorption spectra seemed relevant. I even finally understood the Stefan-Boltzmann constant! Mike covered the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram in great detail, including the classification, characteristics, and life cycles of stars. I finally learned the differences among brown dwarfs (never reached fusion), red dwarfs (completely convective), and white dwarfs (burning nothing, since their fuel is all gone and they're just cooling slowly toward The Big Chill). There were spectacular slides of nebulae, star clusters, and other such astral phenomena. Mike is a thorough and lucid lecturer.

We then all packed up our warm clothes and headed straight for Wyoming InfraRed Observatory (WIRO) on top of Jelm Mountain. The trip took well over an hour. I am an Easterner; we don't have this much emptiness in my state. The road seemed at places to go straight up. It was unpaved and the van beeped and protested. Several of us began to feel light-headed; WIRO is at 9,500 feet. But no one was ill, and the scenery was spectacular.

Deanna Hoak, Jerry Oltion, and Paul Whitcover admire the Big Laramie River, which looked to me like a smallish creek.

WIRO, on top of Jelm Mountain, and two views of the valleys below that in way do justice to the view.

After a sandwich dinner, we explored the 2.3 meter telescope. The two currently resident astronomers (they stay up there for as much as a week at a time) opened the dome. It's a majestic sight, the shutter slowly pulling back to reveal the sky. Almost immediately it began to rain.
We have had perfect weather all week -- until tonight. Everyone trooped back inside, examined the computer room where the data is collected and used (this isn't the kind of telescope you ever actually look through) and settled down to wait out the storm. Some discussed astronomy; some played poker; I beat Jay Lake at chess and then lost to Mike (who has a really, really high Chess Federation rating). Eventually the weather cleared.

The WIRO telescope open to the sky and festooned with Launch Padders.

I can't adequately describe the sky from the top of Mount Jelm. Little light pollution, a 360-degree horizon, and all the glory of the heavens on a mountain top. Then Mike brought out the night-vision goggles, and it got even better. A million more stars popped into view. Through the goggles, which see in heat signatures, the sky looks faintly green and the stars glow hot white like the furnaces they are.

About 10:30 the first group, including me, headed back down the mountain. Temperatures increased, ears popped, sleepiness replaced light-headedness. After WIRO, Laramie looked very civilized, almost too refined -- not an impression I'd had of it before. And so to bed.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

LaunchPad -- Day 2

My brain hurts.

This was a very intense day at the astronomical knowledge factory. It started with a long breakfast with Laura Mixon, Steve Gould, Alma Deckert, and David Marusek, discussing E. coli and genetic mutations. Also science fiction, sleep disorders, and a dozen other subjects. These are smart people. Then on to the classroom. Here is David Marusek beside a defunct telescope that has now become a corridor sculpture:

The day's first session started with Mike Brotherton advising us of cool websites for astronomy. My favorite (which I hadn't known about before) was "Apod" stands for "astronomy picture of the day" and that's exactly what it is. There's also an archive of wonderful photos. Check out July 8: "A Seemingly Square Nebula."

Mike then launched (sorry) into "The Electromagnetic Spectrum." We covered all the basics (wavelength, frequency, energy levels, the Planck constant, photons, black body radiation, Kirchoff's laws). I was doing fine until we hit the math of the Stefan-Boltzmann Law, where I sank. I was, however, pleased to discover that my body is radiating infrared at about ten microns. Mike finished with photos and descriptions of the great telescopes -- of all kinds -- of the world.

At lunch, we all got to play with an infrared camera and night-vision goggles. Through the camera, footprints are visible even after the person has left the room (although they fade fast). Steve Gould made "light angels" on the carpet.

Mike Brotherton in night-vision goggles, looking like a BEM that has unaccountably dressed in jeans.

Three afternoon sessions, which made for a very long day. First, the Physics and Astronomy Department Chair, Danny Dale, discussed "Dust in Space." Forty tons of interstellar stuff -- dust, small meteorites -- hits the Earth every day. Next we moved downstairs to the astronomy lab, where we used primitive spectographs to analyze emission spectra. I incorrectly identified neon as barium (but so did half the class).

Steve Gould ponders the mysteries of a bright-line spectrum.

For the final session of the afternoon, the calculators came out, and Jerry Oltion led us in creating the to-scale dimensions of the solar system. We finally, after many false steps, figured out that in order to fit our t0-scale model into the classroom out to the orbit of Pluto, the sun would have to be the size of a coriander seed and Jupiter smaller than a grain of salt. To make sure we understood the vastness this implied, Jerry had brought along a coriander seed. Also salt. Alpha Centauri, the closest star, would be in the next city, Cheyenne. We then calculated the velocity needed to keep an object in low-Earth orbit (17,000 mph) and, for good measure, the gravity aboard the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This involved watching the movie long enough to count the revolutions per minute of the station, estimate its size from the size of people aboard, and do a lot of calculations for v-squared = rg, during which I got lost in the units conversion and never resurfaced. Down for the third time.

Since I was pretty much a vegetable at this point, I skipped dinner and tried to sleep, but again this did not work. There was only 45 minutes allotted for it, anyway, after which we were all carted off to a party at Mike Brotherton's. The university faculty were there as well. It was a lovely night and the party ended up outside on Mike's patio. I was interested to discover an absence of mosquitoes, since at home no one can sit outside after sundown without either screens or a thick coat of insect repellent. But it is very dry here; no place for the little buggers to breed.

And so to bed, my brain stuffed with information that actually appeared in dreams. Very weird sensation.

Friday, August 1, 2008

LaunchPad -- Day 1

At breakfast with various LaunchPad attendees, I discovered that we are not at 6,000 feet but rather 7,200. A few people besides me felt shaky due to altitude, but for me breakfast helped a lot. Then on to a long day (10:00 a.m. to past 6:00 p.m.) of astronomy.

We began with introductions. Attendees are: Alma Deckert, Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, David Levine, David Marusek, Jay Lake, Cheryl Floyd-Miller, Mary Robinette Kowal, Andrea Hairston, Deanna Hoak, Christine Stebbins, Paul Witcover, and Scott Humphries. Our instructors are Mike Brotherton, Jerry Oltion, and Jim Verley. It felt odd sitting on the other side of the desk, after so many years of teaching. I liked it. The first order of business, however, was a pre-test. I could not remember the inverse-square law. These tests were collected and carted off to be scored, but mercifully we had no results today.

Mike's first session was "The Scale of the Cosmos," about how big everything actually is and what units that bigness is measured in. This wasn't new material for me, but was a good review. Best guess at the size of the observable universe: about 150 billion light years across, "although it might be infinite." We then descended from the infinite to lunch, delivered the classroom by the university. Everyone hydrated.

The first afternoon session was "Seasons and Lunar Phases: Public Misconceptions," and it opened with a film interviewing Harvard graduates on their graduation day, asking them simple questions about the solar system. 21 out of 23, in answer to "Why is it warmer in summer than in winter?" answered "Because in summer Earth is closer to the sun." This included a faculty member in full Ph.D. regalia. After our minds boggled at this, Jim Verley led a session on orbital movements. Everyone hydrated.

The second afternoon session was Jerry Oltion's "Tour of the Solar System," with the latest photographs on information on the sun, planets, asteroids, and comets. The photos, some from the Hubble or planetary probes, were wonderful. I was surprised to learn that Mars has dust storms, not sand storms; there is no sand left due to weathering in the thin atmosphere. Everyone hydrated.

By this time most of us were dead on our feet, especially those coming from the East Coast. I skipped dinner in favor of a nap, which also didn't happen. Too much coffee. In the evening there were astronomy-themed movies, of which I stayed for only one: the TWILIGHT ZONE'S horrible rendition of Clarke's "The Star," which managed a "happy" ending to Clarke's grim story. Mary Kowal and I walked back to the dorm, chatted for a while with David Marusek and Steve Gould, and then I crashed.

No sand storms on Mars!